Where: Port Austin to Port Huron and Rochester Hills, Michigan
Trip Date: 7/21-7/23/17
The final stop on our Michigan trip was in Port Huron. But of course we couldn’t leave Michigan without seeing the thumb (as I have mentioned before, the state of Michigan is sort of shaped like a hand), so we made a detour around Saginaw Bay and up to Port Austin.
As we drove through Port Austin I spotted a shape in the bay that looked suspiciously like a lighthouse, so we pulled over to inspect it. It turned out to be the Port Austin Reef Light, first established in 1878 to mark part of a series of hazardous rock formations just offshore. When it was first constructed it consisted of only a metal frame tower, but in 1900 the current brick tower was added. Interestingly, part of the original cribbing for the Port Austin Reef Light was constructed in Tawas and towed across Saginaw Bay to the reef.
Unfortunately, the light was about two and a half miles out into the lake, and since we neither had time for a boat tour nor to swim to it, I had to settle for taking photographs from a distance.
Pointe Aux Barques
A few miles east we stopped at Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse. The name comes from the French term for “The Point of Little Ships” referencing the area of rocky coast near the light that is inaccessible to all but small vessels. The light was built in 1848—making it among the ten oldest lights in Michigan—to mark the rocky cape that separates Lake Huron from Saginaw Bay.
The original keeper at Pointe Aux Barques, Peter Shook, died only a year after taking the post, and his wife Katherine took over the light keeper responsibilities in his stead, making her the first female light keeper in Michigan.
The current 89-foot tower replaced the original—and by all accounts poorly constructed—tower in 1857.
As it was now my turn to drive, I made sure to keep my eyes open for any other lighthouses along M-25. And in the town of Port Sanilac I was not disappointed. The Port Sanilac Lighthouse was built in 1886 to mark part of the 75 miles of shoreline between the tip of the thumb at Point Aux Barques and the Saint Clair River after frequent requests from the Lighthouse Board for nearly twenty years. Unlike most of the tall towers I have seen on this trip, the 59-foot Port Sanilac Light is octagonal as opposed to rounded.
The lighthouse is now privately owned—if my research is correct—by a descendant of the Shooks, the aforementioned keepers of the Pointe Aux Barques Light. Although it is not normally open to the public, I discovered—too late—that this summer the owners opened it for climbing on Friday afternoons.
That evening we finally made it to Port Huron. After some well deserved rest, we ventured out the next morning to visit Fort Gratiot Lighthouse (the locals pronounce it as “Grashot”). The first Fort Gratiot Lighthouse was constructed in 1825, but due to a poor location, it collapsed in 1828 after a storm caused severe erosion. So in 1829—the year Andrew Jackson became president—the current Fort Gratiot Lighthouse was built slightly to the north to mark the entrance of the Saint Clair River.
Even the new tower was nearly toppled over during the great storm of 1913, during which waves reportedly reached at least halfway up the 85-foot tower (although I guess new is subjective; by 1913 the tower was nearing 100 years of age). But Fort Gratiot Lighthouse survived, and still stands today as the oldest lighthouse in Michigan, and the second oldest on the Great Lakes.
Back in downtown Port Huron, on the bank of the Saint Clair River, sits the Huron Lightship. Although technically not a lighthouse, it served essentially the same function. Lightships carried a lantern atop their mast, and typically served in areas where permanent lighthouses could not be built due to water depth or prohibitive costs. The Huron Lightship, originally designated LV-103, was built and launched in 1920 under the US Lighthouse Service. She served in various locations around Michigan until 1935 when she was assigned to Corsica Shoals in southern Lake Huron, where she stayed until 1970. After more than 50 years in service, she was retired as the last operating lightship on the Great Lakes in 1970, and was permanently moored on the bank of the Saint Clair River, where she now operates as a museum.
After leaving the Huron, we stopped one last time at Tim Horton’s and then headed back towards Georgia.
We did, however, make a pit stop just north of Detroit in Rochester Hills for some fresh apple cider and donuts at Yates Cider Mill. The mill first opened in 1863, and has been making cider since the 1870s. To this day the mill is still water powered. During apple season in the fall visitors can watch the entire cider-making process.
After six weeks, 33 lighthouses (or 32 lighthouses and one lightship if you want to be particular), and around 70 drawings, we finally headed for home.
Thanks for sticking with me for so long. Now it is back to semi-normal life, until the next big trip my posts will be a little more laid back and less packed with information. No more lighthouses for a while…well…less lighthouses.